Battle of the Cheerleader Films: Bring It On vs. Sugar & Spice

School is back in session in many areas, and as anyone who’s been to one knows, one prominent aspect of high school is cheerleading. This is why I’m now comparing two movies involving cheerleaders.

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Bring It On (2000)

This film centers on San Diego high schooler Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst), who begins her senior year on a nice note as she becomes the captain of her school’s cheerleading squad, the Toros. As such, she begins priming them for the upcoming national title, which the team has already won for the previous five years. But her teammate Carver (Bianca Kajlich) is injured, prompting Torrance to search for a replacement. One is found in new student Missy Pantone (Eliza Dushku), in whom Torrance sees potential, although her other teammates think she’s too much of an outcast.

Torrance is surprised when Missy, after seeing the Toros practice, thinks Torrance is a thief as she recognizes the team’s moves are being used by another team from another high school. After Torrance convinces her of her ignorance in the matter, Missy takes her to Los Angeles and shows her that team, the East Compton Clovers. Torrance learns that the previous captain came by and recorded/stole these moves from the Clovers, and if that’s not bad enough, the team’s leader Isis (Gabrielle Union) takes an understandably-pissed off stance against Torrance and Missy before they can leave.

Alas, this doesn’t prevent the Toros from using the same routine at their next home game. Not surprisingly, this leads to the Clovers showing up to humiliate them by performing the same moves. Torrance sets out to create a new routine, but the choreographer they hire teaches the same act to another team, which Torrance discovers at the regionals. The Toros still get earn their place in the nationals, but Torrance is strongly warned to get a new act for them.

She considers resigning, but is supported by Missy’s brother Cliff (Jesse Bradford). But Torrance’s college boyfriend Aaron (Richard Hillman), who recommended the choreographer, tells her that this isn’t the position for her, to the delight of her teammates Courtney (Clare Kramer) and Whitney (Nicole Bilderback), who’d love to replace Torrance. The fact that her boyfriend cheats on her doesn’t help either.

Cliff’s support wavers after he sees Torrance with Aaron. But Torrance manages to convince her team to create a new routine, and to break up with Aaron. She even tries to give the Clovers a hand by offering them money to compete in the nationals, which they had been unable to do in previous years due to financial issues. Isis declines and gets the Clovers to the nationals thanks to a local talk show host.

At the nationals, the Clovers win, with the Toros placing second. Torrance and Cliff kiss and make up and she and Isis happily convey their respect for each other.

Sugar & Spice (2001)

Just one year after Bring It On came another movie about cheerleaders. The cheerleaders at Lincoln High band together after their captain Diane Weston (Marley Shelton) becomes pregnant thanks to her boyfriend, the school’s quarterback Jack Bartlett (James Marsden). The two are definitely made for each other as they both share the same air-headed personality. This is why Jack has trouble getting a job to support his new family after their parents kick them out of their homes, forcing them to get an apartment. Jack does, however, manage to get a job at a video store.

But the hardship of this new lifestyle prompts Diane to enlist her four teammates Kansas Hill (Mena Suvari), Cleo Miller (Melissa George), Lucy Whitmore (Sara Marsh), and Hannah Wald (Rachel Blanchard) into planning a robbery, specifically by robbing a safe at the supermarket Diane works at. They also pledge to keep this all a secret from Jack.

They prep for this by watching heist movies such as Dog Day Afternoon, and as it turns out, Kansas’s mom (Sean Young) knows where they can get weapons thanks to her contacts at the prison where she’s a resident. This leads the girls to a bug exterminator (W. Earl Brown) who calls himself the “Terminator” (how original). He agrees to sell them weapons on the condition that his shy daughter Fern Rogers (Alexandra Holden) can join their squad. They agree.

Our squad is soon simultaneously prepping for the heist and practicing choreography for the upcoming winter ball. They also order masks. But Lucy has second thoughts, thinking this could jeopardize the scholarship she just got to Harvard. On top of that, they’re in need of a getaway car, which they get when Fern says they can use her dad’s van, although the brakes aren’t the best. Diane is even somewhat guilt-ridden when she learns Jack sold his GTO to get her an engagement ring.

When the day of the robbery arrives, Lucy comes along as well, having changed her mind, and, amusingly, has to wear a Richard Nixon mask, while the others are wearing the blonde doll masks that Kansas’s mom helped get for them. The robbery itself succeeds, although one of the guns our girls are carrying goes off, nearly shooting a customer. The robbery quickly hits the news.

After celebrating and burning their costumes, the resentful Lisa Janusch (Marla Sokoloff), who’s jealous of Diane for both being the cheerleading captain and winning Jack’s heart, reveals that since she was one of the customers being held at gunpoint at the time of the robbery, she recognized the stunts the squad performed in order to block the cameras at the market. The FBI takes the squad in.

But Diane makes a deal with Lisa: she’ll make her the captain (since Diane’s pregnancy is preventing her from doing much cheerleading anyway) as long as she keeps her mouth shut. Diane’s teammates hate this deal, but are sympathetic as to why Diane made it. She informs Jack that they have more money because she won the lottery, and all of the squad go on to nice things with their shares of the cash.

Which is better?

In terms of laughs, Sugar & Spice has the edge, basically because it’s silly and it knows it. The cast all performs accordingly, especially Shelton (and, unlike her appearances in Valentine and Bubble Boy, which were both released the same year, I’m pretty sure this was intentional). But Young steals the show as Kansas’s bizarre mother, which may be appropriate considering how bizarre Young herself has been reported to be. The way our heroines slap their bums when they chant their motto is also sure to provide a chuckle.

The film is sometimes too silly for its own good. For instance, Cleo’s obsession with Conan O’Brien loses its laugh factor pretty quickly, although her freakiest moment is her admitting that the sight of Jesus on the cross turns her on. Ironically, the film’s writer, Lona Williams, had her name removed from the movie after the producers asked that the script’s darker content be toned down following the tragedy at Columbine. In fact, the film’s original title was Sugar & Spice & Semi-Automatics. The story was partially based on a series of robberies perpetrated by a group of teenage girls in Texas in 1999. Unlike the film, the actual girls cited mere boredom as the motivation for their crime spree, and also unlike the film, they had to spend a little more time behind bars.

Suvari is also underused, which is both disappointing and surprising considering that she had already scored big time with the one-two punch of American Pie and American Beauty. It’s unfortunate that none of her subsequent roles have been on par with her work in those two films.

But Bring It On is probably the better of the two, mainly because for those looking for a cheerleader film, this film actually goes into the details of that field. In contrast, Sugar & Spice simply uses cheer as background to get into its heist plot. Also, Bring It On at least tries to bring something original to the teen comedy formula. Yes, we have the “girl must dump bad boy for one better for her” cliche, but Dunst is likable throughout, while Dushku and Union both have appealing characters to play as well. Not surprisingly, all three actresses got nice career boosts thanks to this film.

Like the aforementioned American Pie, which came out the previous year, Bring It On would have numerous sequels, but unlike that film, none of them featured any cast members from the original. Sugar & Spice on the other hand ended up being a box-office flop. That’s a shame, because while certainly not perfect, it does make for a pleasant enough time killer if you turn your brain off.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is a western: The Search West is available now from Amazon.

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  • Kradeiz

    Sugar & Spice doesn’t seem to be a cheerleader film so much as a heist/comedy with cheerleading in it.

    • Xander

      The fact that they’re cheerleaders motivates so much of the movie, I’m OK with it being considered a comedy cheerleader heist movie. I watched most of it back when you’d get free HBO sample weekends from cable, and it was pretty good. I watched more of it than I’ve ever been able to watch of Bring It On.

      • Kradeiz

        To be clear my comment wasn’t meant as a criticism so much as an observation. It does sound pretty funny, I just think Bring It On just looks to be more of a conventional cheerleader movie (for good and bad).